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Deal likely sealed by July 21 with sides worn down

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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It's beginning to look as if a deal to end the NFL lockout could come on or around July 19, the date of the next scheduled mediation between the league and its players -- with NFL owners expected to ratify the agreement two days later at a scheduled meeting in Atlanta.

Roger Goodell could soon finally get a chance to explain how the deal got done. (Getty Images)  
Roger Goodell could soon finally get a chance to explain how the deal got done. (Getty Images)  
That doesn't mean the league resumes business immediately. Players must approve the deal too, and if nothing else, that process is complicated by their decertification. Nevertheless, once they sign off on it, look for a frenzy of activity -- with camps opening, rookies and free agents signed, trades produced and a preseason launched.

One possible complication: The Hall of Fame Game.

There is a chance, sources tell me, that the Aug. 7 game between Chicago and St. Louis might be canceled because their training camps would open later than scheduled. Nobody, however, has made that decision.

The Bears were set to open training camp July 22, with the Rams to follow on July 23, and both dates probably get pushed back until a new deal is in place -- with the players the variable because of the uncertain timing of their ratification. Besides, the league isn't interested in rushing into something that might compromise player safety, and if it takes canceling one preseason game it will do it.

At this point, it seems the league believes it can play its second week of preseason games, though there remains the possibility that some of those contests could be postponed a day or two -- again, depending on how quickly a new CBA goes into effect and training camps open.

What seems clear at this juncture is that both sides are as ready to make a deal as they are fatigued, with lawyers this week reviewing the 300-plus pages of a new agreement and negotiators trying to reach a consensus on a rookie wage scale.

While there's always the possibility of an obstacle impeding progress, the expectation is that talks will continue to move toward completion and that a handshake deal can be reached when owners and players sit down next week in Minneapolis -- with owners ratifying it on July 21.

That date always was viewed by owners as a critical one, a last-minute chance to see where they stood for preseason camps ... and where they stand is that camps should be open in time to save all preseason games, with the possible exception of the Hall of Fame contest. In fact, one team source Monday morning told me that he and his staff were notified that training camp would start at its usual time this summer, with no hitches.

More on NFL Lockout

That, a source close to negotiations said, might be "optimistic," but he did say that camps should be open in time to save the preseason -- with, as I said, the possible exception of the Hall of Fame game. He also said it's possible that all but the finer points of talks could be completed as early as the end of this week, with formal approvals coming later.

"As long as we have six weeks prior to the first regular-season game," said one head coach, "I'm OK with it."

That should happen. Several club sources Monday expressed optimism that a deal would be reached within the next eight days, with a head coach telling me he was told that July 21 would finalize the process. That was underscored by others, who pointed out that there is no league meeting scheduled for August and that owners are and have been determined to gain a new CBA by their meeting in Atlanta next week.

If and when that happens, the NFL and its players will save their season, their preseason and all the megabucks that go into making both of them. While that has been the expectation for weeks, Monday's news is the first sign that a fixed date may be in place -- with next week's mediation and owners' meetings the end to a process that began in early March and produced litigation, anger and frustration.

In the end, however, it may also produce a deal -- and sooner rather than later. The last two times there were work stoppages -- the strikes of 1982 and 1987 -- regular-season games were lost. Now, they won't be -- or shouldn't be -- and consider that an achievement.

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